A Conversation with Afia Atakora, Author of Conjure Women

Penguin Random House spoke with author Afia Atakora about her novel Conjure Women, a dazzling debut that sweeps across eras and generations to tell the story of a mother and daughter with a shared talent for healing—and the conjuring of curses.

Penguin Random House spoke with author Afia Atakora about her novel Conjure Women, a dazzling debut that sweeps across eras and generations to tell the story of a mother and daughter with a shared talent for healing—and the conjuring of curses.

Q) Conjure Women is your debut novel. How would you describe it?

photo credit: Photo ©Edwin Tse

A) In some ways I see Conjure Women as an allegorical Southern Gothic tale, the lesson of which is that our past isn’t as far back or as well buried as we want to believe. These last few years as I wrote this novel I tried to live in the past, to keep myself buried in books about the Civil War, but the tinny televised voice of a different kind of War snuck into my ear demanding that Black Lives Matter, questioning the purpose of a monument or a flag, or the right to kneel during a song. The voice said we have never been more divided in this country. It asked: Is a shooting like a lynching? The voice wondered: What does it mean to be a woman, or a black woman, or a white woman? What does it mean to be a mother, or to not be, or to choose to not be? Are we on the right side of history? Can we ever be? I didn’t have an answer. I think that inner voice must have echoed through me into this novel. I hope that it did.

Q) How long have you been working on Conjure Women? Did it involve special research?

Conjure Women began in 2014 as my thesis novel for an MFA in fiction at Columbia University. All told, it has been written over a three-year period. However, the first draft was written at a fever dream pace in about nine months (fittingly enough for a novel about childbirth). Because I first conceived of the novel in this half-lucid state I resolved to keep the writing style to a similarly hazy quality, as much to capture that first inspiration as to emulate the telling and retelling of oral history common throughout the African Diaspora. Historical and medical specificity in the novel is left purposefully vague, but in research I did draw heavily from primary sources: first person accounts, diaries, autobiographies recounted through amanuenses. Most prominent of these were the WPA Slave Narratives. Modern day, I talked with nurses and doctors and midwives, not necessarily for medical accuracy but rather to gauge the way they spoke, the anecdotes they shared, the things they remembered and didn’t want to remember about the art of healthcare and healing. I also had the opportunity during my writing to visit a 15th century slave castle on the coast of West Africa, and though this part of the slave trade journey did not figure heavily into the eventual action of novel, the visit was a particularly haunting experience that cast a vast shadow throughout my manuscript.

Q) What was the most surprising thing you learned while writing Conjure Women?

We tend to paint slavery in America in broad strokes. There are these pervasive singular images of overseers and cotton fields. We think of it in terms of Amendments and Proclamations and Battles. But it’s a vast 200+ years of history filled with nuance and complexity and no two experiences could have possibly been alike. To imbue Conjure Women with that necessary specificity I really had to imagine myself as these people, and as Rue, one lone person in a vast history who does not think of herself as part of history at all, who has no knowledge of the ramifications of the world changing around her. Rue is just, day by day, trying to survive, same as we all are, and to come to that understanding was enlightening and eye-opening.

Q) How did the idea of the novel originate?

The first spark for this novel began when I clicked on a YouTube video link, likely with a clickbait title: “What Happens During This Home Water Birth Will Shock You!” or some such thing. There’s a certain universal allure to medical mysteries. Maybe we think if we can figure out the mysteries we can figure out life—or more likely death. In the video a soothsaying doula sweet talks a sobbing mother who sits with her supportive and equally naked husband behind her. They are both submerged in a kiddie pool set up in the living room of their Brooklyn brownstone. As I watched a stranger’s baby being born on a video on the internet I had to think how strange and modern the whole thing was and yet how timeless. The thoroughly modern midwife isn’t shocked by the newborn whom she plucks from the water completely encased in his amniotic sac. She’s likely seen this before, or read about it, and if she hasn’t she could easily Google it. And watching as she deftly cut away the membrane and this YouTube baby took his first cry for all the world to hear should they be lured to the link to witness this “shock,” I began to think about all the things that have changed and all the things that have not.

Q) You’ve said that Conjure Women is a multi-layered book; there’s so much to unpack with each layer. How does it challenge or augment the Slave Novel genre? Why do we need slave novels and novels that are much more than slave novels?

Stories of slavery in America should be told and told and told. We haven’t learned enough from our history, we need to look deeply in the mirror. But there is undoubtedly a fatigue for the Slave Novel, for those cast as victimizers as much as for those cast as victims. As a quote-unquote genre, the Slave Novel hasn’t even begun to scratch the psychological depths of what it means to enslave other humans, to be enslaved. This is a shared history, universally ugly, and therefore one we naturally shy away from. That is no fault of the genre, or the great writers I admire who have made important, necessary contributions to creating art from a legacy of horror. And so, it hurts, but we need to go further and go on. Conjure Women then is my humble offering to what I have to believe is the new movement of the Slave Novel, one that dares to tell the tales beyond a legacy of whippings against which readers have grown understandably numb. In writing this manuscript it was my hope to unpack every trope, to turn it over, and beat it out. Don’t get me wrong, I have great love for tropes and allegories, for those images we see over and over, but on every page of Conjure Women I try to ask why do these images persist? Why do we call for the Midwife, the Southern Belle, the Traveling Preacher, the Accursed Child? I wanted too to explore all the negative space in slave history, particularly the Reconstruction Era, a decade that seems almost lost to time. This is the space Conjure Women had to inhabit, in the brief hollow of time between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the Jim Crow era, ten years that must have been strangely bittersweet, psychologically fraught. The end of the war and slavery was hopeful for some and a horror for others, a tumultuous time that must have been something like the times we find ourselves in now where everything has been turned all over and we’re waiting to see what settles, who we are going to be. Few other novels fully inhabit this eye blink in time, this forgotten space in history, but the power of the forgotten is at the crux of what Conjure Women is all about.

Q) Can you discuss your inspiration for the character Rue and her coming of age, which you’ve mentioned was reborn from your own childhood?

When I was growing up my mother worked as a home health aide. She would visit with patients who were elderly, disabled, or suffered a chronic illness and help them with day to day activities. In lieu of a babysitter she’d take me with her to her patients’ homes where I observed all those healing intimacies that became half-remembered fodder for this novel without my even realizing. I met so many different people that way, most kind, some less so, and from an early age I learned about illness, disability, and empathy.

Looking back the dynamic was fascinating. My mother was an employee. Her patients were her employers in some cases, or their families were, because they weren’t able to offer the constant care the patient’s needed. But my mother formed close bonds with the majority of her patients. Some respected her for her time and care, others resented her for her skin color, or her class, or perhaps because she reminded them of the indignities of their own illness.

In the novel, in much the same way I did, young Rue observes her mother’s work as a midwife and healer. She learns not just the healing arts but the way that the world works. But by the time Rue comes of age, slavery is at an end and the world her mother has prepared her for has changed. She has decide then how to navigate life with the lessons she’s learned and what kind of woman she wants to be.

Q) You describe yourself as “a black woman, African, but not strictly African-American and certainly not from the American South” and how that's framed your writing. Can you elaborate?

My parents are Ghanaian immigrants. I’m a dual citizen of the UK and the US, so I grew up a little in the UK, a little in New Jersey—and a lot in the vast multicultural playground of New York City. I’m fortunate to straddle so many different worlds but that sort of thing can make you feel like you don’t quite belong in any one place in particular. The character of Rue doesn’t quite belong either, which gives her a unique perspective on the people around her. She is both of the town and its culture but she is also able to study it from a necessary remove. I approached the writing with a kindred alchemy of experience.

Ghana has deep roots in the African slave trade. Its ports were often exit points and in many cases Ghana’s coast was the last bit of home that slaves en route to the Americas would ever see. They took what they could of their culture with them and kept it as close as they were able, mixed it with the things they learned from European slave traders, and once on the plantation they passed on stories of home to their children, and those children told their children what they could remember and invented what they couldn’t. My own cultural identity has formed over a similar circuitous route and I bring that unique experience to the characters.

Q) There are many medicinal plants and herbs that appear in the book. Can you elaborate on which ones you chose to include and why?

All the plants in the book have real “roots” in folk medicine. Their origins come from no one region but all over the American South to magically populate this fictional town. I chose the plants for their uses but also for their common names—life everlasting, high john the conqueror, palma christi—all evocative of the ways that religion and folk tales inform medicine and healing. I was also very much drawn to the natural cures we still use today, especially as modern folks are beginning to reclaim root medicine and herbal remedies. While writing I kept a little plant diary and had a lot of fun with the herbs and roots. And astute readers might just be able to follow the strategically placed plant descriptions to uncover some of the plot’s hidden mysteries.

Q) Who do you see as likely fans of this book? What do you most hope they will take away after reading it?

Conjure Women, as the title suggests, is certainly about women, plural. Be they black, white, mothers, daughters, young or old, I tried to encompass a variety of female experiences that feel as true to the 19th century as they do today. I hope that the novel itself feels like a vivid experience, one that needs to be talked about and considered and shared and to that end it will appeal to book groups of all types. My writing background is as much “literary” as it is “cinematic,” appealing to fans of historical fiction and psychological thrillers. With Conjure Women I aimed to focus as much on the rich language as the intricacies of a moving, entertaining plot which marks the novel as well suited for a grad student’s syllabus as it is for a drug store spinning rack. Lastly, Conjure Women is very much a project of this fraught, self-reflective time in history we seem to have landed ourselves in. America is taking a look at itself, its triumphs and its sins, all the things that need to change, or the things we thought we’d changed and haven’t yet. I hope I have written Conjure Women as an exploration of race and gender, of lies and truth that is just as complicated and multi-faceted as the people that will read it.

Q) There are a number of haints that appear in the book. Can you describe their importance?

A central theme in the book is the specter of history. We might wish to forget our past, especially the darker, more shameful aspects but there’s no escaping the fact that history, both personal and cultural, lingers. The townspeople in the novel are ruled by the haints, the ghosts of their pasts, because they fear them. The characters avoid the ghosts and live stunted lives because of it, unable to leave the town. But until they confront them directly, the haints will not be laid to rest.

Q) How does religion play into the novel and its characters?

Religion is complexly interwoven into the black slave experience. At once, Christianity provided hope. How else to survive all that fear and horror without the promise of freedom, if not in this life then in the next? Following the tenets of religion must have also offered a sense of autonomy to a people who had been stripped of all other identity markers. The parables and psalms of the Bible closely echoed the folk tales and proverbs they’d brought with them from Africa and helped them to understand how to behave and survive in a new world.

On the other hand, religion was a tool of subjugation. Christianity taught obedience to masters and slaves were punished for displays of “primitive” idol worship. In many instances black religion was threatening, viewed as demonic or evil, not only by white slave owners but by other black slaves who held fast to Christianity as a saving grace. Still, African spiritual and folk practices persisted in secret and became blended with Christianity, resulting in uniquely Afro-American practices like Hoodoo, Voodoo, Santeria and of course conjuration. Conjure Women lives in the middle of this dichotomy of magic versus miracles.

“This novel, written in lush, irresistible, and poetic prose, took me into the lives of people in another time and place—into their loves, nightmares, dreams, their unexpected ties—and into the hearts of women I could otherwise never know. I was transported.” —Amy Bloom, New York Times bestselling author of White Houses

“Afia Atakora brings the Civil War South to life so beautifully with Conjure Women. . . . A heartbreaking joy to read.”— Martha Hall Kelly, New York Times bestselling author of Lilac Girls

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